The subject of oil spill handling represents a new area of technology that is unique in that it encompasses chemical, mechanical and biological disciplines. Within this subject the use of chemical dispersants represents a solution that can provide the most applicable approach under certain conditions.

This paper defines the overall problem of oil spills and then derives the basis for the use of dispersants, as well as the conditions that justify their use. Chemical dispersants are not a panacea for the cleanup of oil spills. However, there are situations where dispersants should be used for the benefit of our natural resources; and there are also instances where they should not be used.

An appreciation of the dispersing mechanism and the influence of environmental factors is necessary in order to assess the appropriate role for dispersants in the handling of oil spills.


It is important at the outset of any discussion regarding oil spill dispersants to review the subject of oil spills in general in order to consider the use of dispersants in the correct perspective. The subject of oil spill handling is complex as it encompasses several engineering disciplines, as well as biological, conservationist and political interests.

This paper will derive the specific area of application for dispersants and will review the pros and cons regarding their usage. At the outset, it should be outlined that the role of oil spill dispersants is one of a last resort nature since prevention of oil spills is the first consideration. In the industrial and governmental communities, the major effort has been directed toward this area. There is extensive ongoing research, for example, ranging from operational areas, e.g., collision avoidance techniques and training, to more novel approaches such as gellation of crude oil cargo to prevent release from a damaged compartment, oil-water separation devices, flocculating agents, etc.

However, after a spill has occurred, physical containment and removal is the physical containment and removal is the recommended approach. This is the most complete solution to the problem. Unfortunately, the present state of the art limits the effective present state of the art limits the effective application of oil containment booms to rather quiescent conditions and they are not suitable in general for open sea conditions. As concisely summarized by Dewling, there are at least 37 different approaches to corralling and holding oil spills. Spill boom systems are available in prices ranging from $5 to $45 per foot and represent an important tool under those sea, weather and geographical conditions that permit effective deployment. There is extensive research currently underway in this area, principally funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, to principally funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, to extend the capability of spill booms.

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